When Mom or Dad is Locked Up

By Amy Bracken 


Jessup, Md.—Lowell Gibson lives 15 miles from her nine-year-old son but hasn’t seen him in three years. When asked why not, she thinks for a moment and says, “Maybe it’s the razor wire.”

The razor wire winds around the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW), where Gibson lives. Her four children are among 1.5 million youths with parents in prison, according to the U.S. Department of Justice – a figure that has grown from 937,000 in 1991, as the nation’s war on drugs has helped to swell the prison population to a record 1.3 million (plus 600,000 in jail).

Growing with those numbers are concerns about the children: Various studies indicate that they’re at greater risk of depression, acting out and poor academic performance, says Child Welfare League of America General Counsel Cynthia Seymour, and “as they get older they are at greater risk for early pregnancy, substance abuse and delinquency.”

That is why the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program brings Gibson’s eight-year-old daughter to visit every few weeks. But efforts to serve these children are so beset by obstacles – from transportation (getting kids to prisons hundreds of miles away) to parents who don’t want their children to see them locked up – that altogether they reach, at most, a few thousand of those 1.5 million youths.

Help may be on the way:

President Bush’s 2002 budget plan includes $67 million for programs to mentor the children of incarcerated parents. Expect much of the money to go to faith-based groups; Bush said in January that “people of faith and others can mentor and reach out to these children, and help to heal broken families once prisoners are  released.” 

In Philadelphia, Public/Private Ventures and the Big Brothers Big Sisters Association are trying to recruit 600 mentors from churches to work with the children of incarcerated parents. Called the Amachi program, it is spearheaded by former Mayor Wilson Goode.

And in Washington, D.C., last month, even Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) teamed up to launch a  $1 million fundraising campaign for a nonprofit “U.S. Dream Academy” for the children of incarcerated parents and youths who struggle in school.

But while pledging to serve youths with parents in prison is a hot way to get money and attention right now, it remains to be seen how much of the pledging converts into real services specifically for those children. For instance, while the federal government has provided more than $400,000 over the past three years to fund the Dream Academy’s mission to serve “children of inmates,” the academy essentially provides tutoring and computer access to up to 200 poor Washington, D.C., children – who may or may not have a parent in prison.

Meanwhile, agencies that have long served the children of incarcerated parents are “very hopeful,” in the words of Carol Burton of Michigan’s  Services to Enable and Empower Kids (SEEK), that some of Bush’s budget proposal will trickle to them.

So maybe FORUM (Females Organizing and Restoring Unity for Mothers) in St. Paul, Minn., won’t have to sell so many hot dogs to take kids to see their mothers in federal prison 430 miles away. Also in need of a little federal cash: the nonprofit North East Kingdom Community Action, which teamed with the Vermont Department of Corrections to build a playground at a Waterbury prison, where fathers meet with their children two hours a week, and the FATHERS program in California, which runs literacy and parenting sessions for men in the Marin County Jail while tutoring their children on the outside.

These programs seek in part  to address a dire situation: More than 60 percent of parents in state prisons in 1999 reported being more than 100 miles from their last place of residence – and therefore, in most cases, from their children – according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Parents in federal prisons fare worse: almost half are incarcerated more than 500 miles from their last place of residence. Most of the parents in state prison did not see their children in 1999, according to the DOJ, and nearly half didn’t even speak to them by phone.

The incarceration and separation of a parent, however, typically culminate years of struggles for a child, including parental drug use and crime, poverty and neglect. Prison, says Denise Johnston, director of the Eagle Rock, Calif.-based Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, is “a flag” to help youth workers identify and reach at-risk youth.



Bridging Distance


“On my honor I will try to serve God and my country …”

A young girl leads her group in the Girl Scout promise at the start of a Saturday morning meeting, then returns to a circle of joined hands. Youth worker Marina Gethers asks for good news: “Any hundreds on spelling tests this week?” A few girls shyly offer up their academic achievements, and the topic turns to a quilt they will work on that day.

This is not your mother’s Girl Scout meeting. It takes place at the women’s correctional center in Jessup. Under the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program (operated by about 25 Girl Scout councils in 22 states), the girls come here twice a month for the first step in rebuilding their relationships with their incarcerated parents: overcoming physical separation.

That means more than just shoving parents and children into the same room every two weeks. Sometimes the parents and kids must be convinced first, and prepared.



Agencies that have long served the children of incarcerated parents are “very hopeful,” in the words of Carol Burton of Michigan’s  Services to Enable and Empower Kids (SEEK), that some of Bush’s budget proposal will trickle to them.


Incarcerated parents often cut themselves off from their children because of “an inability to manage the emotions they feel,” which include guilt, or parental inadequacy if the parent can’t stop his baby from crying or doesn’t know how to talk to his teenager, says Ann Adalist-Estrin, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Incarcerated Parents and Their Children (a consulting service for community and government agencies). Also, the parents might be afraid they’ll have to discuss painful issues with the child, might have a negative relationship with the caregiver (such as the other parent or a grandparent) bringing the child to visit, or might simply fear the impact of their children seeing them locked up.

Take Jeffrey Pierce of Oklahoma, convicted of rape in 1986, shortly after the birth of his twin sons. After several prison visits, Pierce and his wife decided to divorce, and she moved to Michigan. She later told the New York Times that her ex-husband did not want his children “to see their dad in a prison environment.” The tragedy was compounded by the state’s admission last month that Pierce, who’d served 15 years, had been wrongly convicted. His now 15-year-old sons had been told nothing of their father’s whereabouts.

At Jessup, Gibson initially did not want her four children to visit – then missed them so much that she “had to see them.” Now three visit on a regular basis, but her nine-year-old boy refuses to come; she thinks he’s afraid. (They do speak on the phone.)


“The first time kids go, they have all sorts of fantasies about prison,” says Kenneth Czaplewski, president of Milwaukee-based St. Rose Residence, Inc., a 153-year-old social service organization for girls which last year started a reunification program for prisoners and their children. But the visit can mean “a big reassurance that mom’s okay.” 

Although reluctant at first to have her kids see her locked up, one inmate says communication with her teenage daughter has improved so much that “now she can’t shut up sometimes.”

One hurdle for St. Rose was another type of parent: foster. Many were skeptical when Czaplewski pitched the idea to the United Foster Parent Association of Greater Milwaukee; some argued that the children should not be exposed to prison. But several foundations and government agencies (including the Greater Milwaukee and the Faye McBeath foundations) liked the idea and kicked in $93,000 to start the effort, while the state-run Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare pays St. Rose to facilitate the parent/child contacts (on a fee-for-service agreement that varies with the services). St. Rose conducts orientations with each foster parent, Czaplewski says, and adds “We’ve had excellent cooperation from” them. The program has served about 70 youths, he says.



Reluctant Kids


But what about when the youths are reluctant? Family conflicts and secrecy about the reason for the incarceration are among the factors that keep children from visiting parents, says Justine Skiba, staff psychologist at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. In addition, some children are not enthusiastic about going to see parents who abused alcohol, drugs, or even the children themselves. (States may prohibit visits to a parent deemed potentially harmful to the child.)

“The preparation phase is crucial,” Skiba says. Children’s Village helps children write to their parents requesting a visit. If the parent responds positively, a visit is arranged – after youth workers talk with the child about what to expect (including a description of the facility), and after staffers help parents decide what to talk about with their children.

One of the Jessup inmates participating in Girl Scouts Beyond Bars took a full two-hour visit to explain to her children for the first time how she landed in prison. Although reluctant at first to have her kids see her locked up, she says communication with her teenage daughter has improved so much that “now she can’t shut up sometimes.”

Even for those willing to meet, however, distance and money can be formidable obstacles. In Minnesota, Mary Gaines says she served seven-and-a-half years in federal prisons in Connecticut, Kentucky and New York – while her children continued to live in the Twin Cities – before being transferred to Pekin, Ill., to where her kids could occasionally make the 430-mile trip.

After her release in 1997, Gaines founded FORUM, a nonprofit that provides spiritual support for mothers in prison, facilitates peer support groups for their children, and provides  transportation to prison. FORUM is funded by donations from individuals and faith-based organizations; one church also provides volunteer mentors for the children.



While pledging to serve youths with parents in prison is a hot way to get money and attention right now, it remains to be seen how much of the pledging converts into real services specifically for those children.


FORUM has helped 22-year-old Tomika Gates, who, along with her five siblings, could visit her mother in the Pekin facility only once a year. That’s because transportation and lodging for all of them (plus Gates’ own two small children) came to about $400. But FORUM raised enough money – mostly through children’s fundraising activities, which include everything from hot dog sales to talent shows – for the family to visit Pekin about once every three months.





An occasional visit, however, is not enough. At Girls Scouts Beyond Bars, the girls regularly meet outside the prison to discuss family and personal issues, and to engage in a range of recreational and social activities, such as visiting the NASA flight center in Maryland or a Ronald McDonald House. The Alliance of Concerned Men in Washington, D.C., provides parenting lessons to fathers in prison, and brings their children to see them.

PATCH (Papas And Their Children), run by the Bexar County (Tex.) Adult Detention Center and Detention Ministries, encourages inmates to attend parenting and life skills classes – sessions intended to help reduce recidivism. For each one-hour class attended, a father is entitled to a one-hour “contact” visit with his child. (This means sitting with the youth in a colorful room rather than speaking on a phone through glass for 15 minutes.)

In Marin County, Calif., the FATHERS (Fathers As Teachers: Helping, Encouraging, Reading, Supporting) program focuses on literacy and parenting skills for fathers in jail, while helping the children with school work. Angel Tree, a multi-state Christian organization gives gifts to children of imprisoned parents, and its website says, “Delivering gifts to the children of prisoners provides an open door for presenting the Gospel of Christ to that family.”

Perhaps the most ambitious are the organizations that use the prison visits to draw the children into youth development or youth leadership.


At FORUM in Minnesota, young people from pre-teens into the early 20s participate in the group’s fundraising, public speaking, writers’ workshops and recreational outings. In New York City, the Incarcerated Mothers Program includes weekly recreational and social activities, as well as youth activism. Teens in the program have lobbied the New York state legislature to repeal “the Rockefeller laws,” the harsh drug laws passed three decades ago that set severe minimum sentences for small, first-time drug offenses – laws under which many of those teens’ parents are now locked up.


Teens Left Out?

But FORUM and the Incarcerated Mothers Program are rare in that they include teens at all. Although 42 percent of children with parents in prison are age 10 and up, the vast majority of programs focus on younger children, and most include no teens.                 Even Flint, Michigan’s SEEK (Services to Enable and Empower Kids), known for its comprehensive approach to aiding children of prisoners, generally overlooks adolescents. Though 15-year-olds may participate in the program, the maximum age at intake is 10.

Why? “It was prevention,” says Carol Burton, supervisor of prevention programs at Mott Children’s Health Center, which runs SEEK. The Michigan Department of Community Health created the program in 1988 in hopes of slowing the growth in the prison population by focusing on the children of prisoners. (The department provides about $220,000 of the $312,000 in state and county funds for the program.) “They wanted to provide any type of protective factors they could as early as possible before the accumulation occurred or compounded,” Burton says.

PATCH (Papas And Their Children), run by the Bexar County (Texas) Adult Detention Center and Detention Ministries, encourages inmates to attend parenting and life skills classes – sessions intended to help reduce recidivism.

But Burton recognizes the importance of prison visitation by older children. “Adolescence or puberty may provide an opportunity for children to talk about the anger they feel toward” their parents, she says.

Anger and a desire for independence make corralling teens into structured programs a challenge. But some programs work on those youthful characteristics:  At FORUM, Gaines says “the independence” of public speaking and writer’s workshops is what attracts teens. Other programs, such as the Totem Girl Scouts Council’s Beyond Bars program in Seattle, let teens plan their own activities.

And in Pennsylvania, the Bethesda Family Services Foundation harnesses the anger of teens. When Foundation President Dominic Herbst realized that many of the youths in the agency’s program for adjudicated juveniles had a parent in prison, he brought them together with the agency’s therapeutic program for parents in prison. Now the juveniles meet with the inmates and play the role of each other’s family members – preparation for confronting their own parents and children.

Coming Home

Ultimately, the youth workers hope these activities will prepare the children and their parents for when the prison sentence ends, and they either live together again or are at least more involved in each other’s lives.

At a 1993 conference on corrections and the family, Adalist-Estrin of Incarcerated Parents and Their Children explained, “When we sever family ties or allow families to put their relationships ‘on hold,’ we leave the inmate to return to the family and face unresolved anger and resentment with underdeveloped or under-practiced relationship skills, which often result in his or her resorting to coping strategies that are illegal, abusive or self-destructive.”

Ultimately, the youth workers hope these activities will prepare the children and their parents for when the prison sentence ends, and they either live together again or at are least more involved in each other’s lives.

Returning parents must also adjust to changed roles in their households, because the children and the other parent or caregivers (such as relatives) have taken on new responsibilities.

Tyrone Parker, director of the Alliance of Concerned Men in Washington, D.C., says that because of “the conditions that [prisoners] are trapped into, the large majority don’t stand a chance” of a smooth transition back with their families.

Parker knows. He says he “relinquished” his responsibilities as a father when he was imprisoned right out of high school for robbing a bank. Then, after serving eight years, he could not stop his teenage son from getting involved in activities that led to the boy being shot to death in 1991.

And in Minnesota, Tomika Gates sees her mother’s release from prison last month as unlikely to lighten her burden. Gates predicts that her mother will not be able to help her run the family for at least another year “because she has to actually get herself together, because she’s been incarcerated and she can’t get any assistance from the government for another five years. So she’s not going to be able to get anything for the kids, or it’s probably gonna take her a while to get an apartment she can afford, or even a job, cause, you know, she’s a felon now.”





Cynthia Seymour, General Counsel


Child Welfare League of America


440 First St. NW, Third Fl.


Washington, DC 20001

(202) 942-0270



Jim Mustin, Executive Director

Families and Corrections Network

32 Oak Grove Rd.

Palmyra, VA 22963

(804) 589-3036




Denise Johnston, Director


Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents


P.O. Box 41-286


Eagle Rock, CA 90041


(626) 449-8796



“Incarcerated Parents and Their Children”


U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics


P.O. Box 6000


Rockville, MD 20849


(800) 732-3277



“Keeping Incarcerated Mothers and Their Daughters Together: Girl Scouts Beyond Bars” 

National Institute of Justice 

P.O. Box 6000 

Rockville, MD 20849 

(800) 851-3420 



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